African talk radio could teach Washington a thing or two

The media wars are in full swing once again.

In his recent tour of interviews, Al Gore lamented the increasing power of vitriolic conservative broadcasters like Bill O'Reilly of the Fox News Channel, who, he says, are tilting the media to the right.

Soon after, Democratic strategists began musing publically about creating a cable network of their own and launching a campaign to cultivate more "powerful" (read: louder) voices from the left.

It doesn't take much reading between the lines to understand that after years of greeting the rising influence of caustic conservatives like Rush Limbaugh with scorn and bemusement, Demo-crats are now seeking to emulate him.

This trend is troubling to me because my work involves developing ways to use the talk-show format as a tool for understanding here and abroad. The threat the Democrats are feeling may be real - Republicans may indeed gain some votes in the short term by igniting partisan fireworks over the airwaves à la Bill O'Reilly, but in the end we all lose.

Whatever our politics, the constant pressure to raise the decibel level on public discourse and the tendency to segregate the media along partisan lines is robbing us of the ability to disagree honestly or solve problems together.

We're left with the dangerous impression that, as Americans, we're far more extreme in our views and more divided from each other than we really are.

There is evidence that the American people see this more clearly than either the broadcasters or the political strategists. Polls show that the public's opinion of journalists and the media is plummeting, at the same time as outlets like the Fox News Channel are thriving. A recent poll by the Pew Center People and the Press shows that more than 70 percent of Americans believe that the media get in the way of problem solving in the US.

How ironic that at a time when partisan radio is growing in influence here, many nations around the world are discovering the potential of talk programs to rebuild trust in regions of almost unimaginable violence.

Both ends of the political spectrum might be cured of their ratings fixation by taking a trip to Africa, where hate radio - a form of partisan broadcasting pushed to its murderous extreme - was used in Rwanda to incite and fuel genocide between two ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis.

In the wake of these massacres, Studio Ijambo was established in neighboring Burundi to help prevent similar carnage. This radio studio, created with international support, grabs high ratings by bringing journalists from all backgrounds together to create talk programs that promote healing across ethnic lines.

In a country where ethnic massacres break out with regularity, one of the most popular programs is "Pillars of Humanity," a talk show devoted to the stories of Hutus who have saved the lives of Tutsis and vice versa.

In Sierra Leone, where a bitter 10-year civil war cost the lives of some 250,000 people, Talking Drum Studio reaches 85 percent of the population with a talk show cohosted by excombatants who were once bitter enemies. Recently disarmed, they discuss with listeners methods of reconciling with their neighbors and uniting this deeply fragmented society.

In Liberia, where war forced thousands of children into roles as soldiers or slaves, and thousands of others were separated from their families during the many years of chaos and violence, Golden Kids News is hosted and coproduced by children, and features discussions about the devastating longrange impact of war on young people.

In each of these societies, journalists are being trained in new skills, such as how to promote dignity on both sides in a contentious discussion and how to recognize and challenge stereotypes. In most of these countries violence still threatens, but the language of dialogue is gaining a foothold.

How sad for us that as Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, and Burundi are using the talk-show format to create a culture more conducive to democratic values, ours is looking more and more like the media they are seeking to transform.

Eileen Dzik is supervising producer in the media division of Search for Common Ground, an international conflict-resolution organization.

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